With all of the illegal song-trading and bootlegging going on, why aren’t more artists selling live performance CDs?
There are significant advantages to selling live CDs at the end of the show – added income, added value for the fans and one more way to get music into the marketplace.
This is something the big promoters know well and have made money from. It’s common for promoters like Live Nation to have dibs on recording performances, then selling them. House of Blues charges artists $2,000 to record and sell their live CDs. Then there are venue origination fees, which is what labels pay to record or videotape performances for future use.
But what of the artists who tour the rest of the buildings in the world? It’s not uncommon to see an artist or band sit at the merch table after a performance at the local theatre and sell 15 copies of the latest studio CD. It produces a somewhat modest profit margin and it gets even more modest considering a $15 CD now costs the artist up to $10 to get.
Meanwhile, artists like Joseph Arthur, Bob Schneider and Marc Broussard are recording their shows and selling anywhere from 50 to 150 recordings per night at $15 a pop. Blank CD-Rs are bought in bulk, as are cheap sleeves or jewel cases, and towers that cost about $2,000 can burn about a half-dozen CDs simultaneously. A show usually fits on two discs.
"We usually charge $15 to $20 a show and the production costs at some of these venues are so high that $15 won’t cover it," Schneider told Pollstar. "So we’ve been selling these discs at the end of the night, which people really love, but it essentially turns a $15 show into a $30 show."
As for red tape, that’s easy.
"Bob won’t play any venue that won’t agree with this," Schneider manager Mia Crow told Pollstar. "And since everybody loves him and loves having him play there – because he makes them a lot of money – it’s never a problem. That’s just part of having Bob play your venue. It’s in the deal memo."
Everyone Pollstar talked to repeated the same thing: There are many advantages to selling live CDs and they were surprised more people aren’t doing it. Fans tend to buy one at every show and look forward to it. They have good production quality and it doesn’t take long to recoup the original investment.
"It is a high-profit item but it’s more about spreading the music through the community, like the Grateful Dead, and it still doesn’t keep people from buying the studio recordings," one manager said. For instance, Arthur will package a live recording with his studio album – $15 separately or $20 for the pair – which increases Nielsen SoundScan numbers.
Fans tend to buy the CDs as souvenirs, trade them, upload them to Archive.org, and use the CDs to introduce the artist to friends. Still, it’s not for everybody. Some artists are more protective of their music while others are wary of the warts-and-all production values. And if it’s all about getting the music out into the marketplace, there’s MySpace – so why do this?
Because, as one manager told Pollstar, an artist’s MySpace page only features four songs, whereas a live CD provides a unique experience from the evening and only a fraction of MySpace "friends" really care about the music.
Another argument against recording live is the cost of taking along a sound engineer rather than relying on the house soundman. Why would, say, a trio or singer/songwriter that tours light want to strap a sound engineer to the hood of the station wagon?
As it turns out, that’s exactly what Joseph Arthur does. Even when he’s touring as a solo act, he takes along his day-to-day manager, Lauren Pattenaude, and a sound engineer.
"We actually were doing this longer than Live Nation, Ticketmaster or Pearl Jam," Pattenaude told Pollstar. "It was something that Peter Gabriel mentioned to Joseph at one point. It was a brand new concept that people didn’t understand at the time and we felt like we were on the cusp of doing something pretty cool, and it ended up getting picked up by these major companies. We can usually work something with the venue, and the couple times we’ve had to pay smaller fees it ended up being worth it."
So why don’t more acts do it? First of all, a system will cost between $5,000 and $10,000 – and burn towers have a two-year shelf life. Co-written songs create copyright issues, major labels tend to keep a tight grip on their product and touring the larger venues requires lots of paperwork and/or favors.
In other words, it works best for independent artists who own their own publishing rights and record labels – and who can work around the venues that record shows.
"Also, I guess you have to have a lot of confidence in what you’re doing and the songs you sing in case you have an off night," Crow said. "But it’s not an issue to Bob. He feels proud of every show and is very confident."